Tag Archives: science

Science For Giggles

7 Apr

for giggles header

Letter Knowledge. Understanding. Reason. Critical thinking. Problem solving. These are inextricable parts of my DNA as much as any gene sequence. I am a scientist (amongst other things) at the very core of my soul. I taught science to middle schoolers, and indeed at every chance I get today. I’m a practitioner of science in my professional life. I’m an advocate for science in the lives of my children.

I wince at the idea of “science” as a religion. Instead I think of the scientific method as the best way to approach problem solving. It doesn’t require brute-logic. Quite the contrary. It requires creative, outside-the-box thinking. It’s a methodology that is applicable to every problem life can throw at you, and when properly applied, can never fail.

My daughter with her heroes... and her dorky dad.

My daughter with her heroes… and her dorky dad.

On the social side of things, the Socratic Method, which dovetails nicely into the scientific method, is a way of relating to other people of different backgrounds and understandings. It eschews adherence to dogmatic thinking and values back and forth dialogue to eventually, rationally, resolve a difference of opinion.

Showing "The Hyneman" her Mythbusters-inspired science fair project.

Showing “The Hyneman” her Mythbusters-inspired science fair project.

Lace all of that with a hearty distaste for self-righteousness, add a steady diet of silliness with a generous helping of the dork-factor, and these are the values I am passing along to my children.

Distil those ingredients down to its purest essence, infuse it into pop-culture, let it marinate for 14 years and out of the oven comes a piping-hot helping of “Mythbusters” – my enthusiasm for which has been well documented in this blog. Yes, the show reached its finale’ some time ago but its host Adam Savage continues to be the standard bearer for fun-loving advocacy of scientific thought, creative thinking, and all things dorky.

Episode V got to go to the show the next year.

Episode V got to go to the show the next year.

In the post-Mythbusters world Adam has shifted his professional attentions to the website Tested.com where all the above-mentioned values are on full display. The site regularly produces content aimed directly at people like me. In their regular podcasts Adam has even talked (among other things) about his perspective on parenting and fatherhood which is, frankly, profound, insightful and eloquent. (In fact I have been trying like hell for the past year and a half to get an interview with him on just that topic… to no avail.)

A very gracious Adam taking time for a very tired boy after a Tested.com event.

A very gracious Adam taking time for a very tired boy after a Tested.com event.

In any case, today Tested.com offered up a delightful video that embodies everything I’ve outlined above, so much so that I felt compelled to share it. It’s as much a video about DIY problem solving as it is utterly ridiculous silliness. Scientific thought doesn’t always have to be applied to world-changing problems. Sometimes it can just be about making yourself giggle. If I was still teaching middle school this video would be my lesson for the day.

Watch it. Watch it with your kids. When they’re done watching, if they’re anything like my kids I bet any money they’re going to head straight to the toolbox and start building…

…I hope you let them.




28 Dec


mycology fixed header


letter Hiking is part of the routine around the DorkDaddy household. With three kids of varying maturity levels (and a dog with absolutely zero discipline) nature walks are usually more of an exercise in keeping your cool than they are Zen communing with nature. We live in the most spectacular redwood forests in California and it’s important to us that our kids learn to appreciate the natural world as much as the material world.

Episodes IV, VI and DorkDoggy.

Episodes IV, VI and DorkDoggy.

When our troupe isn’t bickering loud enough to scare away the wildlife, the redwood forest is a great opportunity for this DorkDaddy to display my encyclopedic knowledge of middle school-level science, and hopefully spread my enthusiasm for the subject. At this point Episodes IV and V could teach their own teachers a thing or two about banana slugs (arliomax californicus), ferns, conifers, life-cycles, photosynthesis, adaptations and natural selection. But on the down side, we’ve been through these forests so many times we’re running out of new things to discover and talk about.

A UCSC student having a mind-altering experience.

A UCSC student having a mind-altering experience.

This Christmas Eve morning we woke to a perfect, cloudless blue sky and decided it would be best for everyone to get out of the house for a walk before launching into the family obligations. Episode IV was already bitter about being forced to attend a church event for her cousin later in the day, so I was prepared for another bicker-fest hike, and indeed that’s how it started.

A beautiful cluster of... I don't k now the taxonomy here.

A beautiful cluster of… I don’t k now the taxonomy here.

“But I don’t want to go. Why do I have to go? It’s not fair that you’re making me go. We *ALWAYS* go to all of her things…” and on and on and on.

Zen communing with nature? I don’t think so.

Concentric fungal growth rings.

Concentric fungal growth rings.

But sometimes all it takes is a little bump to scratch the needle off the record, and as we walked (bickering) we began to notice that something was different about this trail we’d hiked a hundred times before. On past expeditions I’d taught my kids about producers (plants), consumers (animals) and decomposers (fungi, etc.) and in so doing explained that fungi flourish in a warm, dark, moist environment (like your gym socks). Recently our area had experienced torrential downpours, followed by unseasonably, ridiculously pleasant warm temperatures. Combine that with the decomposing leaf litter on a redwood forest floor and you have a fungal perfect storm.

We checked for Smurfs. There were none.

We checked for Smurfs. There were none.

Just like that we were shocked out of our standard bicker-fest and into a reverent (Zen communing with nature) frame of mind. There by our feet, along the trail we’ve walked countless times with jaded eyes, was a fungal firework display the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Anyone with their eyes open couldn’t help but bathe in wonder at nature’s splendor, and in the presence of such a marvel it was impossible to be snarky.

Lacy, jaw-droppingly beautiful fungi.

Lacy, jaw-droppingly beautiful fungi.

We walked the trail moving from discovery to discovery, indulging as much time as we wanted at each stop to take it all in. Episode IV and I waxed poetic about lifecycles, natural variation, and survival strategies. The conversation transitioned quite organically into the different ways that people choose to live their lives. Only now, as opposed to the snarky footing at the beginning of the hike, our conversation came from a more observant, philosophical posture. Instead of counting the minutes until we could get the kids back into the car, we lost ourselves in conversation, surrounded by a once-in-a-lifetime natural event.

We chose not to focus on what these were growing on.

We chose not to focus on what these were growing on.

For my part, I was able to have what I could only describe as the perfect outdoor experience: an intellectually stimulating conversation with someone I love, surrounded and inspired by natural wonder I have never seen before. For her part, Episode IV was able to come to an understanding about people who exist on different, sometimes seemingly incompatible points along the religious spectrum. She was able to reconcile how doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing and ultimately later that day she happily attended her cousin’s church event with no bitterness.

Standing sturdy and proud in the leaf litter.

Standing sturdy and proud in the leaf litter.

Not bad for a couple of silly mushrooms.

Best. Hike. Ever.


-Dork Dad

"Daddy, that one looks like it's made out of butter." Notice the banana slug sprinting away from us in the background.

“Daddy, that one looks like it’s made out of butter.” Notice the banana slug sprinting away from us in the background.

Editor’s note: I’m aware that this post comes off as more-or-less a photo blog. That’s OK. Every one of these pictures was taken within the scope of a single 60 minute hike. If anyone out there has some legitimate scientific knowledge about the species I’ve shared here, please pass it along. My reverence at the experience was almost matched by my frustration at the holes in my knowledge about what we were looking at.

Not all fungi look like umbrellas. These look more like antlers.

Not all fungi look like umbrellas. These look more like antlers.


It was almost like they were breathing through their gills.

It was almost like they were breathing through their gills.


We called this one "the brain."

We called this one “the brain.”


These tiny mushrooms seemed to cascade down (or up) the wood.

These tiny mushrooms seemed to cascade down (or up) the wood.


A funnel.

A funnel.


I believe the yellow growth isn't fungi. If memory serves, it's what we call a slime-mold.

I believe the yellow growth isn’t fungi. If memory serves, it’s what we call a slime-mold.


Pretty sure this is a slime-mold too.

Pretty sure this is a slime-mold too.


I bet this one would give you some interesting dreams. (do *NOT* even think about it)

I bet this one would give you some interesting dreams. (do *NOT* even think about it)


We had pancakes for breakfast. You can guess what we called this one.

We had pancakes for breakfast. You can guess what we called this one.


Mushrooms the size of dinner plates.

Mushrooms the size of dinner plates.




Do You Science?

10 Jun


letter big surprise: I used to be a middle school science teacher before I was a dentist. I know – shocker, right? So it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about the “school science fair.”

In fact, surprising though it may seem, my undergraduate degree has nothing to do with science. I was an elementary education major. (Long story. Don’t ask.) As I went through my program it became pretty obvious that smart as my fellow education majors may have been, and as cool as they though science might have been, let’s just say that science wasn’t really their thing. In a world where teachers need to worry about standardized tests , overpopulated classrooms, shrinking budgets and differentiating individualized instruction, it’s no wonder that come science-fair time the finer points of what science *REALLY* is tend to get lost in the noise.

At my kids’ elementary school students get their first taste of the science fair in 2nd grade (at the very end of the year when their attention couldn’t be less focused). “Science” as an entity looms large in our house, so when the assignment finally came Episode IV was all charged up and I, in turn, was all charged up to make this a *REAL* learning experience, rather than an end-of-the-year afterthought.

Kids that age think science is just something cool where some person in a white coat does something dramatic with dry ice, or liquid nitrogen, or giant 3-inch locusts (all of which I have done in their classrooms). That in itself is wonderful. It sparks their interest and gets them excited. But science isn’t a sideshow. Science is about asking questions, rationally collecting information, and then shaping our understanding of the world based on where that information leads us. From that perspective, the first thing kids need to learn is how to formulate a proper (testable) question.


Case in point, a real conversation at our dinner table:

“So, have you thought about what you want to do for the science fair?”

Episode IV thinks for a bit then, going for the gross-out factor, “How about we get a cow eyeball…” (we had talked about dissecting a cow eyeball for a classroom lesson) “and a human eyeball and dissect them both and see what the difference is!”

Gross, though not surprising if you know this kid. Clearly she was not in the right headspace and needed some proper instruction about what a real scientific experiment is. That sparked a great conversation around the table about control, and variables (two concepts that are most definitely within the grasp of a 2nd grader if presented to them properly) and how to formulate and test a hypothesis. We brainstormed for a while and eventually settled on an idea expanding on the tried-and-true mentos and diet cola experiment.

“CANDY AND SODA — Is there anything that makes it explode better than mentos?”

DorkDoggy got in on the action too

DorkDoggy got in on the action too

Now it should be said that I am also well aware of the “obviously-the-parent-did-this-science-fair-project” factor, and I was determined to let Episode IV do as much of the project as she could. But kids also need guidance and instruction. If someone doesn’t show them HOW to set up a proper experiment, and doesn’t show them how to rationally interpret the data, they’ll never learn anything. So from concept to presentation, letting her do as much work as possible without leaving her floundering, we definitely took a “let me show you how to do a proper science fair project” approach for this first foray into the world of science fairs.

Mentos and diet soda -- it never gets old.

Mentos and diet soda — it never gets old.

That Saturday morning I loaded Episodes IV and V into the car and off we went to the candy aisle at Target. There they picked out as many different candy types as they could get their hands on, and we cleared the shelf of 2 liter bottles of diet coke. Giddy at the prospect of exploding soda (and leftover candy) they bounced in their seats until the car pulled unexpectedly into the Home Depot parking lot. “Why are we here, Daddy?”

Jellybeans and soda... not so great.

Jellybeans and soda… not so great.

“Where else can you get an eight foot piece of border molding and a roll of black duct tape?” They blinked at me, incredulous. “Trust me,” I said.

We got back to the house and, eager though they were to tear into the candy, I made them watch/help as we used to duct tape to mark out two inch stripes on the border molding. “How are we going to measure the explosions if we don’t have something to measure it with?” I stood the zebra board up next to me and the light of understanding clicked on in both of them. We spent the rest of the afternoon gleefully exploding diet coke all over the backyard, taking pictures, eating candy, and writing our results down in a log.


…and wouldn’t ya’ know it? We got a result that none of us were expecting (OK… maybe I had a suspicion, but they didn’t). It turns out that the thing that makes diet cola explode even more dramatically than mentos is a spoon full of BAKING SODA!!

After dinner as the kids were crashing from their afternoon-long sugar binge, drunk on science, sunshine and saccharine, we skipped the usual bedtime YouTube clip and snuggled into Mommy and Daddy’s bed to watch a TiVo’d episode of “Mythbusters.”

Baking Soda And Diet Soda -- Who Knew?

Baking Soda And Diet Soda — Who Knew?

Truly there is no show better suited to entertain the whole family, and joyfully illustrate the sound principals of the scientific method. That night my kids went to bed with visions of glorious science in their heads.


Fast-forward a couple of days. I was tooling around the internet when I discovered that the Mythbusters live stage show was coming back to our area. UnDorkMommy and I went to see it from the nosebleed seats a couple of years ago and it was great fun. We both agreed that it was totally family-friendly and perfect for a kid just about the same age as Episode IV.


So I went into high gear and found that there were still a scant few awesome VIP-level seats available. One swipe of the credit card later and Episode IV and I have front-row seats to see Adam and Jamie bust some myths live on stage in fantastic Mythbusters fashion. And if that wasn’t enough, the VIP level seats also come with “Meet The Mythbusters” access. That’s right. After the show Episode IV will get to go backstage and meet Adam and Jamie in person, the very guys who performed the definitive television experiment on mentos and soda.

When I told Episode IV about it she said to me “Do you think they’ll be interested in our experiment? Can we show Adam and Jamie what we did?”

“I know they will, sweetheart, and yes we can.”


-Dork Dad

Not So Fast

9 Jun

notsofast title

letter back when I interviewed Ron Fugelseth about his amazing “Toy Train In Space” video, naturally the conversation turned to parenting. Without prompting he used the exact same words to describe his parenting that I constantly think of to describe my own.

“I just want my kids to be able to look back on their childhood and think, ‘That was awesome.’”

Not “good.” Not “great.” Not even “normal.”


When I look back to my own childhood, the experiences that stand out most are those that were outside the range of “normal” childhood experiences. Sure, there was the paper route. There was biking in the streets with my neighborhood friends. There were little league games and cub scout camping trips and piano lessons. All of these make up the tapestry of my childhood in the same way they do for most other kids who have similar (identical) experiences. I am grateful for those experiences.

But nothing can compare to the time that I went flying with my grandfather up in his airplane and he told me to put my hands on the co-pilot’s wheel. He showed me how it was tied to the pilot’s wheel so when he turned his wheel, mine did as well. I remember feeling my hands turn back and forth with the wheel as Grandpa steered the plane gently right and left. I remember watching out the window as the wing dipped in synchronization with the wheel turning in my hands. The wheel turned left again and the plane leveled out and then… the wheel went limp in my hands.

I looked over to Grandpa to see what was going on and he was leaning back in his pilot chair, hands *OFF* the wheel and laced behind his head, cigar puffing away and a huge smile on his face. “That’s it, buddy. You’ve got it. You’re the pilot now.”


It’s the experiences like that, the ones that every other kid on my block didn’t have, that I remember best. Those are the experiences that made my childhood awesome. Those are the experiences that I want my kids to have. Whether it’s a backyard hovercraft, or a locust dissection science lesson in 2nd grade, or building a Hobbit hole in the backyard (we just launched that project this weekend), I go out of my way to make sure my kids get as much awesome as I can give them.


For this reason I also feel a natural kinship (if not inferiority complex) to the likes of Ron Fugelseth and Mike Adamick (links provided for your convenience) who inject their steroid-infused, gamma ray creativity into their parenting to provide nothing but “awesome” for their kids. It’s a frame of mind that you can’t necessarily turn off. When I see something I think is awesome my first instinct is to share that with my children. I found myself in that position again this weekend.

Early Saturday morning I found myself at a continuing education course in the staff lounge of a local Oral Surgeon’s office with a half dozen other dentists. There we sipped coffee and orange juice while we watched a particularly interesting and complicated surgical procedure piped into the room on a 60” flatscreen in real time as the procedure was taking place two rooms away. The procedure was fascinating, but for the lay person it would be tough to get past what was essentially a very bloody procedure.


Nobody would blame you if you cringe at that sort of thing, but it was a room full of dentists. It’s what we do. Sick as it may sound, we all found the procedure completely amazing, and watching it happen in real time was totally awesome.

When the procedure was done we were each handed a flash drive with a video file of the entire procedure and, for better or worse, my very first instinct was “So cool! I can’t wait to get this back, load it up on the computer and show it to my kids!”

*needle scratch off the record* Not so fast there, Tex.

Enthusiasm is great, and I am very lucky to be in a position to provide amazing, out of the ordinary experiences for my kids. But there’s an adage in dentistry: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. My daughter is an amazing human being, with more character strengths than I ever had. But one thing she continues to struggle with is empathy.

She will bug her brothers just for the pleasure of making them scream. She will torment the incredibly patient dog just because she thinks it’s funny. If there was one scoop of ice cream left in the container she would throw elbows and pull hair to get at it first. Thus far the entire universe revolves around her and despite our best efforts to show her otherwise she has yet to figure out that there are other people in the universe, each with needs and feelings that are equally as important as hers.

So yeah… empathy. It’ll come (hopefully) but as of yet it’s still underdeveloped.

As I drove home I wondered if showing a video of a guy getting his rotten teeth pulled, his gums sliced open and peeled back and his bone shaved down to a girl who struggles with empathy might not be the best parenting decision I could make.

Long story short, I didn’t do it and it was the right decision.

Because you know… good parent first, awesome parent second.


-Dork Dad

Field Trip

9 Jan

what good


How does that line go from the old Christmas carol?

“A pair of Hop-a-long boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Bonny and Ben
Dolls that will talk and go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jenn

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”

letter we are currently in my kids’ 3rd and final week of winter break from public school. Most dental offices close down for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, so I got a good, strong 2-week dose of family time. But as much as I love my children, I have to say I practically skipped out of the house Monday morning on my way back to work.


…good luck honey.”

butterfly garden

butterfly garden

UnDorkMommy has been doing a herculean job keeping them entertained and out from in front of the TV/computer screen this week. So when Episode IV suggested that they go to the Academy of Sciences yesterday, everyone was onboard.

The Academy is a two hour drive away, so these trips generally mean a long haul both up and back, with a napless baby thrown in for good measure. That’s OK. You’ve gotta do that stuff every once in a while. The text messages I got throughout the day seemed to indicate that the kids were getting along amazingly well, and were having a great time. Cool.

Bunch of goofballs.

Bunch of goofballs.

As it happens, Wednesdays are the days I teach at the dental school in the same city as the Academy of Sciences, and this particular Wednesday was the first day back. Through a cosmic alignment of circumstances we found the entire family in a city 2 hours from home on a day the kids didn’t have school and the dental students didn’t have any high-stakes projects going on. It was an opportunity I just couldn’t’ pass up.

After some bartering via text messages with my wife (there was an over-tired baby and a 2 hour drive home to factor in) UnDorkMommy agreed to drive through the city and swing by the dental school so Daddy could give the big kids a tour (because let’s get real, nothing gives DorkDaddy a thrill like showing off his family).

Daddy came down to the street in his white lab coat and picked them up curbside while the baby stayed (moderately) entertained by a DVD in the minivan with Mommy. I took them to security and got them an official “visitors” badge. We walked through the clinic, a room filled with 200+ dental chairs and positively buzzing with patients, students, staff and instructors. They got to see students of mine, and shake hands with some of my former professors now colleagues. One of the administrators was pushing a cart around, overflowing with free toothbrush samples, so they filled their pockets.

For about 12 seconds I considered taking the kids to the cadaver lab…

…I didn’t. Don’t worry. But I’m still considering it.

Then it was a ride up the elevator to show them what a real dental school classroom looks like. We stepped into the back of the lecture hall – 150 empty seats all facing a projection screen at the front of the room. Episode IV turned up her nose immediately. “This classroom doesn’t look very fun” she said. I suppose I had to concede that one to her.

“Oh, you want to see something really fun, do you?” I replied. The final stop on our tour was the dental school equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room – the Sim Lab (cue dramatic music). Imagine 150 first year dental students in a room as deep as the eye can see, all working furiously away, drilling little plastic teeth in 150 mannequin head work stations.

Nothing gives me a thrill quite like showing off my family.

Nothing gives me a thrill quite like showing off my family.

We walked through the door and Episode V said “Woah! There are plastic people in here!”

“Yes,” I replied. “And the plastic people are all going to be dentists someday.”


If Episode V looks a little too comfortable in that chair, there’s a reason.

I want to give massive thanks to my students who whisked up my kids, sat them down at the workstations and let them be real dental students, if only for a few minutes. For what it’s worth, I like to tease my dental students with the fact that my 5 year old son has done more real life dentistry than they have. They uaually laugh at me and say “yea right”. Then I show them these pictures and they realize I’m not joking.

She's got him right where she wants him.

She’s got him right where she wants him.

I also want to give massive thanks to UnDorkMommy who tacked on an additional 45 minutes to the daytrip, even though she already had a melting down baby and two tired, overstimulated big kids to deal with. She knows, as I do, that if your kids are going to dream big, they have to be able to picture themselves in those dreams.

Besides, what good is having a dental school if you can’t take your kids to the Sim Lab once in a while…?


…or the cadaver lab.


-Dork Dad

How To Throw A 5th Birthday Party Of Scientific Awesomeness!!

20 Aug


letter The weeks of summer were slipping by. The first day of school was on the distant horizon and although the kids were blissfully ignorant, the parents knew there was one last major item of business to take care of before launching into full-on get-ready-for-school mode. Episode V was turning 5, and the kid needed a birthday party before the whole world disappeared into backpacks, class rosters, lunch boxes and new shoes.

Finally we had to acknowledge that we wouldn’t procrastinate any longer. A party needs guests, and that means invitations, and that means giving people some notice ahead of time. UnDorkMommy sat down at the computer to get the E-vite cranked up and asked Episode V “So what kind of birthday party do you want to have?”

The boy was lost in play at the moment, and could only offer 10% of his total mental bandwidth to the conversation. “I don’t know,” he replied.

“Do you want a superhero theme?” she asked.

“Mmmm” came the noncommittal response.

“What about a Lego theme?” The only answer from the boy was the sound he made of two plastic robots crashing into each other. “Or how about a bike party?” The sound of battling robots stopped as Episode V realized that UnDorkMommy was still talking to him.

“Um… what did you say?”

Just as UnDorkMommy was about to express her exasperation, DorkDaddy walked into the room. “I have an idea” he said with the wide-eyed smile that promised something epic and awesome was about to follow. “How about.. ((pause for dramatic effect))  a SUPER SCIENCE BIRTHDAY PARTY?!!?”

“YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!” shouted the boy.

DorkDaddy threw a smug wink to UnDorkMommy, which was returned by an icy sneer – at once a reminder of who’s who around the house and also a warning not to push his luck one millimeter further.

Later that night the division of labor was established. “You realize this one is all on you, right?” said UnDorkMommy.

“You handle the food and the invitations,” said DorkDaddy. “I’ll handle the entertainment.”

As usual, UnDorkMommy did a masterful job managing the logistics. There really was no question. As the day of the party approached, the only real unknown was whether or not UnDorkDaddy would be able to make good on  his promise and deliver a “5th BIRTHDAY PARTY OF SCIENTIFIC AWESOMENESS!!”

Below is an account of how I ran things. Was I successful? I’ll let you be the judge.


E-vite invitations and reminders went out with specific instructions. This would be a parent-assisted birthday party. No drop-offs and pick-ups after the festivities. Kids were also encouraged to bring their bikes and helmets. The party would be held at the local park, and there would be some down time here and there, perfect for biking around the dirt track.

Between the kids Episode V knew and their siblings, we expected 18 children (and their parents). So we planned all activities for 20, just in case. Once everyone made it to the party it was time to gather around the table for the first experiment.

It’s important to point out that when teaching science, enthusiasm has to be high. The dork-factor has to be turned all the way up. Success in teaching science lives and dies in the presentation. The good news was that I am supremely qualified in both the scientific and the dork arenas. I made sure I brought my A-game.

I called all our little scientists over to the experimentation table where they found the scene pictured below. Each one of them had a pair of goggles (thank you Amazon.com) waiting for them. We took a moment to sharpie their names on their goggles and explain the rules: Nothing goes in your mouth. Everyone listens to instructions before starting. Etc, etc, etc. When they were sufficiently pumped-up, it was time to start the show.



Experiment #1:

Mentos and Diet Soda

mentosThe Materials:

mint flavored mentos candy, diet cola (diet seems to work best, but any carbonated cola will do) in a bottle (any size)… cans are too difficult to work with (and don’t hold enough soda to make a spectacle), a mop (because this gets incredibly messy).

readyThe Procedure:

The original, legendary experiment that, in one form or another, has spread like wildfire across YouTube, Facebook and the Twitterverse. It’s as simple as this: Get a bottle of diet cola. Carefully remove the cap so as not to release all the carbonation too quickly. Drop in three mint-flavored mentos, and stand back to watch the cola-geyser of awesomeness erupt in dramatic fashion – and make an incredible mess all over the place (I would strongly encourage you to file this experiment in the “outside only” category). If you’re really feeling spunky, do a YouTube search on “mentos and soda” to see all of the creative variations on a theme. For my money, when you’re wrangling 20 5-year-olds, simplicity is key.

fountNote: only the original mint-flavored mentos will work here. There are other flavor varieties, none of which work nearly as well for reasons I will explain later.

Another Note: Don’t throw away the soda bottles used in this experiment yet. Collect them all and have someone rinse them out thoroughly during the next experiment. You’ll use them again for the 3rd activity.

15 feetThe Science:

The reason why this works is a phenomena called “nucleation.” To explain let me change to a different but not unrelated topic. For water gas to condense into a droplet it turns out that the gas needs something to condense around… some slight irregularity in the environment to grab onto. Without that slight irregularity the gaseous water stays stuck in gaseous form. At extreme altitudes where airplanes fly, the air is so pure/clean that gaseous water, no matter how badly it may want to turn into water droplets (clouds), has nothing to grab onto (nucleate around). So the gaseous water up there stays gas until an airplane comes around. The plane’s engines leave exhaust and that exhaust is made up of itty-bitty particles. Those particles are just perfect for the gaseous water to nucleate around, condense from gas to liquid, and form itty-bitty water droplets. And that’s airplane contrails are formed.

concentrateThe same goes for the carbon dioxide gas stored up in the soda. The carbon dioxide gas is actually dissolved in the liquid cola and desperately wants to get out by forming a gas bubble and escaping. The problem is the inner surface of the plastic soda bottle is so uniform, so smooth, the carbon dioxide has nothing to nucleate around to form a bubble. As it turns out, the surface of the mint-flavored mentos candy has the perfect texture for nucleation. Drop three candies in and there is more than enough surface area around the candies for all the carbon dioxide in the bottle to grab on to, form gaseous bubbles, and fizz out of the cola almost all at once. This is why the other flavored mentos don’t work nearly as well. They have a waxy coating to them which is almost as smooth as the inside of the cola bottle, and are therefore nowhere near as effective for nucleation.


Teaching Aids:

Frame this experiment in the context of “states of matter,” which is to say solid, liquid and gas. The candy represents the solid, the soda the liquid, and the gas is the carbon dioxide dissolved in the cola. The question at hand is how to get the gas out of the liquid. For extra fun you can purchase commercially produced geyser tubes to make the reaction erupt higher and in more than one direction. It’s particularly fun to watch all the parents standing around at the party go running for cover when the fountain reaches more than 12’ high and the wind blows the cola into the crowd.

For a more merciful way to demonstrate solids, liquids and gasses a root beer float will do just as nicely. If you’re doing this activity in a classroom environment, it makes a nice way to wrap up a unit (and I can say from experience that root beer erupts just as effectively as diet cola).


 At this point we sent the kids off to go race bikes around the track. While they were doing their thing we collected all the bottles together in a garbage bag. Coincidentally, Episode VI was starting to melt down so UnDorkMommy quick took him home to put him down for a nap (Grandma babysat), rinsed out all the soda bottles, and brought them back to the party before anyone was the wiser. While she was doing that, another dad and I wrapped up the entire mess, tablecloths and all, and stuffed it into another garbage bag for disposal. Like a well-oiled machine we gorilla taped two new tablecloths down, and set out the materials for the next experiment. We turned the entire thing around in 5 minutes and managed to avoid losing the attention of our little scientists. “Attention scientists! Find your goggles and your grownups and come on over for the next experiment!”

Experiment #2 was deliberately chosen for the #2 spot because it’s a little lower-key. You can’t keep kids at full RPM’s for the entire party, and I knew I wanted to finish with a bang. Best to bring it down a little.


Experiment #2:

Rainbow Milk

milkThe Materials:

colored plastic bowls, milk (the fattier the better), liquid detergent, plastic spoons, food coloring

The Procedure:

Pour just enough milk to cover the bottom of the colored plastic bowl; about ¼” deep should be more than enough. Place a few drops of food coloring (5 or 6) at random spots on the surface of the milk, taking care not to stir the drops and blend them into the milk. Just leave ‘em sitting there. For best effect, use a number of different colors. Put a little liquid detergent into a spoon and drop by drop, one drop at a time, drip the detergent into the milk at varying distances from the food coloring drops. Watch as the detergent makes the food coloring drops dramatically swirl and blend in the milk like a bad 60’s acid trip. Observe one of your detergent drops close up and watch the food coloring churn in a tiny turbulent pattern.

colorThe Science:

Fats and oils (lipids) are very long, large molecules that are difficult to digest. In order to extract energy out of lipids our bodies first need to break them down into much smaller pieces – it needs to emulsify them. Just underneath our livers is the gallbladder which releases bile into our digestive system, the purpose of which is to emulsify the fats we eat so our bodies can better extract energy from lipids.

Where organic chemistry is concerned, detergents perform much the same as the bile in our digestive tracts. They break long lipid molecules down into much smaller chunks. When you put a drop of detergent into the milk, the detergent begins to emulsify the fats in the milk. The food coloring drops swirl, mix and churn because they follow the currents in the milk initiated by the emulsification.

swirlTeaching Aids:

If you want to get messy with things, you can hand each child at the party a potato chip and ask them to rub it between their hands until it’s smashed to oblivion (a little piece of hot dog would work too). Then have them reflect on what’s left on the palms of their hands. They should notice the grease right away. The grease is a lipid, and it’s in most foods that we eat. Since chewing grease doesn’t break it down, our bodies needs to find another way to emulsify it. That’s where the gall bladder and bile come into play.

A bottle of vinegar and oil salad dressing also makes an effective demonstration. Notice how the vinegar and oil is separated after it’s been sitting for a while. Shake the bottle vigorously and notice how the oil is now broken into many itty-bitty little droplets that are suspended in the vinegar. The lipids have been emulsified.


UnDorkMommy had carefully coordinated the delivery of the pizza to coincide with the Rainbow Milk experiment. By the time we were done everyone was getting hungry, and the pizza was piping hot and ready to go. I sent them over to the other tables to refill their tanks. Again, I took the opportunity to clean up from the previous experiment. We bundled everything up in the tablecloths, stuffed ’em in a garbage bag, and taped down fresh tablecloths like a Formula-1 pit crew. After everyone (except DorkDaddy) got a few slices of pizza in them, it was time to ramp-up the “Ooooh… Aaaaa” factor.


Experiment #3:

Elephant Toothpaste

IMPORTANT NOTE: Although this activity is called “elephant toothpaste,” under no circumstances should any of the materials be put in the mouth. Adult supervision is a must.

swishThe Materials:

a tablecloth, 6% hydrogen peroxide (the stuff you get at the pharmacy in the brown bottle is 3%… it’ll work, but it won’t be as dramatic. The 6% stuff comes from a hair salon), dish soap, food coloring, dry yeast, a soda bottle, cup, water, spoon

yeastThe Procedure:

First things first: get a decent tablecloth down, preferably one with paper on one side and plastic on the other. This experiment is ultra-messy, so you’ll want the plastic side of the tablecloth down and the paper (absorbent) side up.

foamPlace about three fingers (scotch reference) of 6% hydrogen peroxide into an empty soda bottle. If you’re recycling the bottles from the mentos/soda activity, be sure they’re thoroughly rinsed out. They don’t have to be dry. IMPORTANT NOTE: Hydrogen peroxide can irritate eyes and skin; concentrated hydrogen peroxide even more so. This part of the experiment should be done by grownups, and eye-protection is an absolute must. Into the bottle with peroxide, squirt a little bit of liquid dish soap and three or four (5 or 6) drops of the food coloring of your choice. Be careful not to shake up the solution and make it frothy. Just gently swirl the peroxide/soap/food coloring until it’s nice and uniform… minimal bubbles at this point.

foamyFill a separate cup about ½ full with water and stir in one spoonful of dry yeast (you can find dry yeast in the grocery store by the flour… took me a freakin’ hour to figure that out). When the yeast/water is well stirred, pour it into the bottle with the peroxide/soap/food coloring.

Stand back and watch an awesome, Technicolor, foamy mess bubble forth from your bottle. The reaction will keep going for a good long while, and very soon it will become clear why it’s called “elephant toothpaste”.

When the reaction is done it’s perfectly safe to touch. At this point it’s just soap and water. Notice that the foam is a little warmer than you would expect.

millionThe Science:

Hydrogen peroxide is a molecule with two hydrogens and two oxygens (H2O2). All by itself it wants to break down into water and oxygen gas (2H2O2→ 2H2O+O2). It’s the oxygen gas that you’re seeing when you see hydrogen peroxide bubble. The reaction is easily quickened if you introduce impurities (remember nucleation?) or even sunlight (that’s why it comes in brown bottles). The dry yeast acts as a nucleation site, which makes it easier for the hydrogen peroxide to break down. Tiny oxygen bubbles are then trapped in the dish soap, and the result is a really cool (and messy) foam that continues to froth out of the bottle like someone endlessly squeezing a tube of toothpaste.

toothpasteIt is an axiom in chemistry that whenever a bond is broken energy is released. That holds true for hydrogen peroxide breaking down into water and oxygen. The foam will feel slightly warm, like a plate fresh out of the dishwasher. Reactions like this are called “exothermic.” Had we used more concentrated hydrogen peroxide, more heat would have been released in the same space, and would therefore feel much warmer, even hot. In this regard, stick with the 6% peroxide. The reaction isn’t too exothermic, and isn’t too abrupt. It’s just right for a bunch of kids.

Teaching Aids:

Do a “elephant toothpaste” search on YouTube and you’ll find all sorts of fantastic video variations on the same theme. If you’re doing this experiment in a classroom it makes a great way to wrap up the lesson.


53 experiments down. One to go. This time we sent the kids for cupcakes, and blowing out the candles. The pit crew did their thing again at the experiment tables. It was important to sugar the kids up because the next activity was the grand finale. By the time we were done we could hand ’em back to their parents for de-tox.




glueThe Materials:

white Elmer’s glue, borax, two disposable cups, borax (or substitute liquid laundry detergent), water, food coloring, 2 plastic spoons, zip-lock baggie

The Procedure:

Pour a healthy quantity of Elmer’s glue into a disposable cup (ideally about ½ full). Put in 3 or 4 (5 or 6) drops of the food coloring color of your choice and stir evenly with a plastic spoon.

blueIn a separate cup fill about ½ full with water. With a separate, 2nd spoon scoop a spoonful of borax into the water and stir thoroughly. The borax won’t dissolve particularly well in water, but enough will get in solution to do the trick.

NOTE: Boron is toxic via ingestion. As always, nothing used in this experiment should wind up in anyone’s mouth. Adult supervision please.

dorkAt this point I should point out that the entire borax/water step can be substituted with straight-up liquid laundry detergent. It certainly simplifies the entire procedure with fewer steps, and for that reason that’s the way we went at the party (with 18 kids to wrangle, simplicity is key). But having done the experiment both ways I have to say, the results are much better with borax. The borax gak is more rubbery, where the detergent gak is more whispy, runny, sticky and slimy. If you don’t want the stuff getting in your kid’s hair, on their clothes and all over the car upholstery, rubbery is better. In any case, be sure to have a zip-lock baggie handy for storage when you’re all done. Gak preserves pretty well in a zip-lock.

beforeBefore the powdered borax in water settles to the bottom of the cup, pour a healthy quantity of water/borax into the cup with the colored glue and stir vigorously. Stirring will require a little strength as the reaction takes place and the concoction begins to gel. At some point it may require an adult with a stronger arm. Additionally, the mixture tends to form “glue bubbles” where a thin skin of rubbery slime encapsulates a wet, sticky bubble of unreacted glue. At some point the scientist will have to scoop the concoction out of the cup with his/her hands (don’t worry, everything here is safe to touch) and kneed it around to incorporate as much borax solution as possible.

stirEventually the scientist will be holding in his/her hands an awesome, slimy, nasty handful of colored gak. If the results seem too sticky, too liquid for your tastes, just add more borax solution to firm it up to the desired consistency. Eventually it shouldn’t stick to your scientist’s hands.

slimeThe Science:

This is a fantastic lesson in polymerization. In chemistry, a fancy word for a plastic is a “polymer.” A polymer is a fancy name for a long chained-molecule where the links in the chain are the same identical units repeating over and over. If the long chain is called a polymer, an individual link is called a “monomer.”

eeeeewAs far as this experiment goes, Elmer’s glue is a chemical called polyvinyl acetate. By itself the polyvinyl acetate (glue) is a runny liquid (the “polyvinyl” parts are really long chains by themselves and tend to get tangled, so glue isn’t as runny as other liquids… but it’s a liquid none the less). The boron in borax likes to reach out and make four bonds with two different polyvinyl chains (we call that new structure a cross-linked polymer)

It isn't polyvinyl acetate, it's polyvinyl alcohol. But you get the point.

It isn’t polyvinyl acetate, it’s polyvinyl alcohol. But you get the point.

essentially linking them all up together and making the big long polyvinyl molecules even more likely to get tangled — which in turn changes the solution from a thickish liquid to a stable gel.


linkedTeaching Aid:

When discussing polymers and monomers, first pull out a bunch of same-sized legos (duplo blocks work even better because they’re bigger and easier to see). Explain how, on their own, each lego brick is a monomer. Under the proper conditions it’s possible to link them all up into a big, long chain. In chemistry, that chain is called a polymer… made up of individual, identical monomers.

Next get the kids up off their butts and out into a defined, open space. Instruct them to wander around on their own, herd-style, within the space. Notice how easy it is to move around, even if they do bump into another kid once in a while. Then, when you shout “CATALYST” each kid needs to find the kid closest to them and link arms, a different kid on each arm, eventually making a long (polymer) chain of linked (monomer) kids. Now instruct the chain to wander around in the same defined space without breaking the links. They’ll quickly see it’s a lot tougher to wander. That’s why the glue goes from liquid to gel after the polymerization reaction.



And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how to throw a 5th birthday party of scientific awesomeness!!

What do you think?


-Dork Dad

From Marlin Perkins to Adam Savage

5 Jan

ome of my very earliest memories are from the days when my mom worked the night shift at the hospital, and my dad had to pick me up from daycare after work. He would bring me home and the two of us would have bachelor night – which ultimately meant Van Camp’s pork and beans (with hotdogs) for dinner on the ottoman, in the living room while watching “Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” hosted by Marlin Perkins. This was priceless father/son time because I knew there was no way Mom would approve of us eating Van Camp’s on the ottoman if she were home. Dad and I were having our buddy time.

Marlin Perkins - everybody's cool grandpa in the 70's

I can’t say if it was the “buddy time” association with “Wild Kingdom”, or just my natural aptitude for science, but that show stuck with me. I remember Marlin Perkins very vividly – sort of a Walt Disney-esque with a genuine love of nature which, perhaps, shifted him enough away from the mainstream to qualify as mildly dorky. For whatever reason his enthusiasm resonated with me, and to this day I love watching those nature shows.

I’ve mentioned before what a high value I put on science, particularly with respect to passing on a love of it to my children. For my part, before I was a dentist I was a middle school science teacher, and I took that role as seriously as I do parenting. I believe in my heart that to spark a love (rather than fear) of science, the teacher has to be a little bit quirky, incredibly enthusiastic and quite frankly, dorky. I tried to be that person for my students, and even more so for my children. But I can’t be the only influence. My efforts have to be supported in countless other ways, by my children’s teachers and by the science “celebrities” that they are exposed to via other mediums.

Slim Goodbody - would you let your kid spend time around a dude dressed like that? I don't think so.

Looking back at my life I can remember a string of science “celebrities” that stoked and fanned the flames of my love of science. Marlin Perkins was the first. I remember him as fondly as you would remember your own grandfather, and I am incredibly grateful for those evenings he shared with me and my Dad. There was also Slim Goodbody who regularly inhabited the space between Saturday morning cartoons, and the occasional after school special. He wore a borderline inappropriate body suit which illustrated the major organs of the body, and talked about how the body worked, and what we needed to keep ourselves healthy. Between his bad 70’s whiteman afro, and the cornball songs and dances he performed, he ranked a 10.0 on the dorky richter scale, and I loved him for it.

"Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill Nye The Science Guy!"

Later there was Bill Nye The Science Guy who was originally a professional comedian, but found his stride making a science for kids TV show playing the quirky, dorky, bow tied, mad scientist, and then later advocating for all things science as a public speaker. He was dorky in the extreme, and I ate it up.

Then there was Bob Shalit, my high school chemistry teacher. He was certifiably crazy, but brilliant. You never knew what was going to blow up in his classroom, and he had

Steve "Croc Hunter" Irwin. I never knew you, but I loved you.

that glint in his eye that said “I’m not sure how big this boom is going to be. It could be pretty big. But how cool would that be?” I credit him with giving me my first taste of academic science, and for making it fun. Later in adulthood came Jeff Corwin, the more academic, nerdy animal lover, and the indomitable, completely batsh*t-crazy, totally lovable Steve “Crock Hunter” Irwin.

So there it is, my path to science nerd/dorkdom. As my kids grow I have kept an eye out for what science “celebrities” are going to play the same role in their lives, and the picture is beginning to take shape.

Chris and Martin Kratt... the animated versions.

On sleepy weekend mornings my kids crawl in our bed, and while we are all snuggled together they like to watch “Wild Kratts”, an animated show where real-life brothers Chris and Martin Kratt explore the animal-world with super powered suits that give them the characteristics and abilities of the animals they’re studying. It’s super cheesy. It’s super dorky, and my kids love it. They’ve learned more about honey badgers, tazmanian devils, beavers and fireflies from “Wild Kratts” than I could ever teach them. Chris and Martin Kratt are clearly the next link in the evolutionary chain of science/nature show hosts – and I can say with authority that their dork-credentials are of the highest caliber.

Recently though another routine has emerged in our family with echoes of me and my father eating Van Camps with Marlin Perkins. I’m lucky enough to be able to go home for lunch every day, and while my kindergartener daughter is at still at school, my pre-schooler son us usually home. My lunch time is my down time. I need to wall myself off from the world and decompress before going back out there, so I usually wind up shutting myself in my bedroom with a bowl of cold cereal, sitting up on the bed and watching whatever TiVo has waiting for me… typically the stuff that my wife doesn’t like to watch.

That means “Mythbusters”.

These people have my dream job.

If the Kratt brothers are the next link in the evolutionary chain of science show hosts, Adam, Jamie and the rest of the “Mythbusters” crew are evolution’s crowning achievement and pinnacles of perfection. These folks let their nerd-flags fly high. And the brilliance of the show is that they take that slightly crazy Bob Shalit, crazy high school science teacher eye glint and amp it up to catastrophic proportions – all while using the scientific method as the framework for a scientifically sound, totally entertaining narrative. It’s crazy. It’s genius. It’s real science. For my money it’s one of the most intelligent shows on television; and quite by accident it’s hooked my son.

I don’t quite remember how it started, but a few months ago while I was holed up in my bedroom at lunchtime eating cold cereal and watching “Mythbusters”, my son quietly came in, crawled up on the bed, snuggled down, and started to watch with me. This has gone on for some time now (Can I watch Mythbusters with you, Daddy?) enough that it has become a regular thing, something I look forward to and miss when it doesn’t happen. I don’t know if he does it just to be with me, or if he genuinely likes the show, or if it’s some combination of the two. But yesterday as I sat there with him I was struck by two thoughts:

1)      When my son has his own kids and blogs about the very first influences that sparked his interest in science he will likely talk about Martin and Chris Kratt, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.

2)      He will also likely blog about how these afternoons, alone together in my bedroom with a bowl of cereal in front of “Mythbusters”, was priceless father/son time, knowing full well that there was no way his Mom, under any other circumstances, would approve of us eating cold cereal on the bed and watching science TV during the day.

If it were Van Camp’s and “Wild Kindgom” it could almost be the 70’s, with me and my own father.

Marlin Perkins would be proud. I know my dad is.

-Dork Dad

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